To read an historical fiction it is necessary to put aside our modern world. But that’s the easy part. The real difficulty lies in being willing to take off our modern goggles and see life as it was lived centuries in the past without judgments that come from several hundred years of social evolution. This isn’t easy, and there is so much we don’t know. Even writers who have spent years in research can only imagine life before mass media, women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, the overthrow of the monarchy, and the waning of theocratic governments.
This is a book that takes us to the eighteenth century to look at the life of a woman of the theater. At that time actresses were considered little better than prostitutes and few young women were encouraged to follow that path. Still, many did, not all of them women of loose moral character. Like women in our own time, many sought to be recognized and respected for their talents and hard work, stubbornly battling the stereotypes. However, also like modern women seeking acting or singing careers, some find themselves forced to acquiesce to the demands of the “casting couch” in order to find some small control over their lives. In the eighteenth century all women submitted to men, be they directors, fathers, brothers, or husbands. In this the wife was no different than the actress: she had a role to play, which was to see to the comfort and pleasure of a man. All women were held captive by this role, although the actress certainly appeared to have a more exciting life than the wife. While the wife may have looked at the actress with some envy for her supposed freedom, the actress probably looked at the wife, envying her security. Often, the pivot point between them was the husband, who required different things from the women in his life.
Which brings us to another problem when reading an historical fiction: that is the concept of marriage in an earlier time. In the eighteenth century a marriage was seldom made for love, especially between people of the noble, aristocratic, or educated working classes. The latter certainly had a little more access to romantic bonds, but the parents had the final say. After the ceremony it was back to life as usual; there was no honeymoon, and a steady parade of children usually followed, especially in those countries where the Catholic Church still held power.
With science teaching that a man needed regular sex to maintain his health, where was he to go when his wife was constantly pregnant, in post-partum confinement, or lactating? Men were expected to seek sexual release outside the marriage, something that few wives were threatened by. It was not his sexuality that made him loyal, but his sentiments. Falling into bed was not the sin, falling in love was, because that threatened the livelihood of the wife and her children. Therefore, men who could afford to do so kept mistresses and many wives were glad of it.
Likewise, the carrying, bearing, and raising of children were not the man’s concern. A man was not part of the birth of his children, nor was he part of the washing, feeding, or diaper-changing. He was expected to support his family and to be a good provider. He was to see to their religious instruction and their social grooming, and that was all. The children of a mistress, especially, were not his concern; only the generous, financially solvent man supported his bastards. Most men did not even acknowledge their illegitimate offspring, leaving it to the mistress to seek abortions or send the children into servitude as soon as they were able to work. Ideally, the mistress took care of what birth control was available at the time.
These things seem harsh to us today, but to see the eighteenth century clearly, without our modern sensibilities intruding, we must force ourselves to remember that where these social issues are concerned, people were not like we are. The roles of men and women were clearly defined in an attempt to keep society civilized. In our century such roles are looked down upon as we evolve socially, each of us toward our own personal fulfillment, regardless of gender. Death was always around the corner, most people were grossly uneducated, and Europeans, although largely dominated by the Church, were not religious in the way that people are today. There was no fear of global self-annihilation, no Freudian analysis, and no modern American fundamentalism, which didn’t take root until a hundred years later as a backlash to the liberal theology in both
England and . The world was a much larger place, and most people never traveled beyond their own city walls. America
This is a book about two musicians who had seen most of
Europe and had encountered other cultures, philosophies, and religious beliefs. They had been child prodigies, were worldly and educated, relatively tolerant, and unusually broad-minded. They were acquainted with many of the same people and had visited many of the same cities. When they met, they had to have recognized these similarities and they must have spent long hours in conversation about their mutual experiences. It is not difficult to imagine that they would have found these similarities comforting and even attractive.
As difficult as it is for us to slip beneath the skin of a person of the eighteenth century, it would be even harder for someone from that time to slip beneath ours. It is my hope that by reading this book you will truly get to know the characters and accept them for what they were, without modern bias.
S. K. Waller